LOS ANGELES – It's not unprecedented for a dead man to sell records. But while Jim Croce's popularity didn't flag after his death in a plane crash, the late Jimi Hendrix has returned from a ghostly limbo.
Almost completely ignored in recent years, the black guitarist who helped change the sound of rock in the psychedelic Sixties and who died in London in 1970 is back near the top. The first 250,000 copies of Crash Landing, his posthumous album released in March, sold out in a month, and by April sales were at 70,000 copies a week. Hendrix even appeared as a "guest" on an installment of Rock Concert. In a world becoming increasingly bizarre, a dead man has made a comeback – with an album recorded nearly four years after his passing!
This is how it was done. In the last year or so of his life, Hendrix spent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours in the studio, laying down tracks with dozens of friends, including John McLaughlin. When he died, the tapes went into storage in New Jersey.
Over the next few years, the Hendrix estate (his father in Seattle, represented by lawyers in New York) submitted material to Warner Bros. Records from another source. Though these takes became The Cry of Love, Hendrix in the West and War Heroes, the overall submissions were, according to Warners executive Don Schmitzerle, so spotty that "for every one we accepted, we must have rejected two."
Then in 1974, Schmitzerle called Alan Douglas, a New York producer who'd first recorded John McLaughlin in America and had worked with Hendrix in the studio during the last year of his life. Taking 637 tapes totaling nearly 500 hours of music and songs to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Douglas listened and made notes for four months. When his plan to release some tracks with McLaughlin on them was frustrated by the Mahavishnu's contractual unavailability, he hatched a riskier plot.
"I listened and listened," Douglas recalled, "and one day it was clear what I had to do. Jimi's rhythm guitar lines were working, his leads were working, he had good vocals and the tunes themselves made it. The trouble was on most of the songs the other musicians weren't making it. Consequently when I stripped everything else off the 16-track tapes, we at least had Jimi."
A question remained: If musicians like Experience members Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding hadn't cut it, then who was going to "work with" Hendrix? On "Message to Love" and "With the Power" Douglas did not delete sidemen Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, the drummer and bassist who with Hendrix had formed the Band of Gypsies that followed the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. But on the other six songs, lesser-known musicians were hired to play along with the tape machine.
Among the men picked for this unusual task were Jeff Mironov, a guitarist from New Jersey who'd backed Gladys Knight, Richie Havens, Sha Na Na and Dionne Warwicke; Bob Babbit, a bassist from Detroit who had played with Motown acts like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross; and Alan Schwartzberg, a jazz drummer from New York who'd switched to rock and pop, supporting Harry Chapin, Gladys Knight, Tony Orlando and Dawn, James Brown and Judy Collins.
First the bass and drum tracks were cut, with Babbit and Schwartzberg jamming to the Hendrix tracks without rehearsal. Guitarist Mironov was brought in; then came a percussionist, and, for one track, three backup singers. All of them agreed that the sessions were spooky.
"I mean," Mironov said, "I've always been a fan of his. But it was freaky. I tried to make my guitar sound like the way he played it. We wanted to finish the album the way he would have."
Babbit remembered how he and the drummer had prepared to record by listening carefully to one of the tracks, making notes of all the changes in meter. In the studio, they both made one of those changes perfectly, but Hendrix didn't do it with them. They tried it again, and again Hendrix failed to make the change. Babbit said he thought Hendrix was playing a trick on them. Then he remembered it was only a tape.
Once Warners had a finished Crash Landing in hand, they were confident enough to recall the other albums issued after Hendrix's death. Announcing the decision this February, Schmitzerle said that "because of the excitement we experienced on hearing the Douglas/Hendrix tapes, we felt obligated to eliminate albums which, as a whole, are of less than top Hendrix caliber." But Douglas added another reason, noting that sales figures for Hendrix in the West and War Heroes had been "embarrassing – one sold 15,000, the other 20,000."
Crash Landing's success should guarantee that other R&B-flavored albums will be made with "rediscovered" Hendrix material. "I'm not trying to appeal to the old Hendrix fans," Douglas has said in defense of his project. "They stopped liking the records after Smash Hits. The tunes on Crash Landing do have some electronics on them, but I was limited by not having a live guitar player to work with. I could have tried many things, but they just didn't feel right."
Only one of the musicians on the Crash Landing sessions had ever met Hendrix. In 1967, when Hendrix was enjoying his post-Monterey Pop Festival fame at New York's fashionable club, the Scene, Alan Schwartzberg was drumming there for Mose Allison.
"We used to talk," Schwartzberg recalled. "Once he said to me he'd like us to play together sometime. Every musician says that all the time, y'know. So I didn't pay any attention. And now, ten years later . . ."
This is a story from the May 22th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.